I’m a little late on this, but the Atlantic ran a recent story arguing that all of our social networking is making us lonelier than ever. There are a few leaps of logic that are too much to me, such as the leadoff anecdote about the lonely death of Yvette Vickers. The author regards it as somehow horrifying that she died alone, unnoticed for six months and her only communications had been with old fans.
Why is that a problematic anecdote? Because it’s not like people have never died alone before. What was unique about this case was not that a woman died alone and no one noticed for a while. She was childless, not religious and most of her friends were dead. What was unique was that she was not alone; that her contacts with distant fans, however superficial, at least brought her some flitting human contact.
The article maintains an early balance, pointing out the social media mainly amplify our existing social structure and it does not appear that social media are causing the rise in loneliness. But then it goes off onto one of the most aggravating journalistic excess: the personal stream of consciousness. It mainly rehashes the same argument we have been hearing for years: social media create an artificial social image, social media are superficial, etc., etc.
The problem is that the Facebook experience she describes is atypical. There are narcissistic people out there who have a zillion friends and carefully cultivate their image. But for almost all of us, it’s a way to stay in contact with people we actually know, to dump off a quick update in the busy world to let people know what’s going on. The typical user has about 130 friends, which is close to what our brains can deal with. And they know most of them pretty well.
For many, social media are not a replacement for social contact but an intensifier of it. I mentioned last week how I used Facebook to alert everyone I knew to be gallbladder problem. In the process, I heard from several people about their own gallbladder surgeries. Maybe, in the pre-internet days, they would have called the hospital to talk to me. Maybe. But I doubt it.
Facebook allows me to send pictures to my parents and keep them up to date on their granddaughter. The last time we were in Australia, it allowed my wife to meet up with a childhood friend for the first time in decades. I have had numerous good conversations start from, “Hey, I saw what you said on Facebook yesterday.”
My political blogging fits the loneliness description more. But while it’s true that the blog and twitter feed don’t harvest close personal friends (and probably does feed some narcissism), it does give me an outlet for stuff I’d just be pacing the room and ranting about. It does, hopefully, give some of my readers something to talk about to their friends. And it allows my friends to choose whether they want to deal with my politics.
Sullivan’s readers pushed back hard on this, pointing out actual research that shows that an internet user is less isolated than a non-internet user in the same circumstance. Think of how awful it would have been for Yvette Vickers without the fleeting contact of the internet.
In the end, have heard this line of crap since the dawn of time. Every invention from the printing press to e-mail was supposed to make us a soulless society, to deprive us of real human contact. I’m sure, when man first painted figures on the walls of caves, some self-important dick was saying, “Well, this is all fine. But we’re becoming a soulless society. People don’t pantomime buffalo hunts anymore.”
But it seems, as the article argues in its more sensible paragraphs, that this is something we have chosen: to have a world that is more connected than ever even as we get lonelier for various reasons that are probably completely unrelated to internet technology. The decline in families and tight-knit communities is a loss. But we are also in world where someone is seconds away from communicating their thoughts to millions, where friendships can be forged over almost anything and where one needs never lose contact with old friends. I too am concerned about the reconfiguring of our social model. But I’m unwilling to get hysterical about it.
Humans are social animals, no matter what the misanthropy people might think. We will never move to a society where people prefer loneliness over companionship or machines over people (a few genetically self-correcting exceptions aside). I see the enthusiasm for social media as a response to loneliness, not a cause of it. And as such, it’s a good thing.
Update: More from Althouse.